Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Florida Panthers
Greetings from Sunrise (actually Plantation, which is where the Lightning stay), where the Bolts will face the Panthers tonight at the Bank Atlantic Center. The Lightning have eight regular season games remaining, playing one home and one road game against each of their four Southeast Division opponents. The series with the Panthers will end after tonight’s contest and Tuesday’s rematch at the St. Pete Times Forum. The teams have split their first six contests, with each team going 2-1-0 on its home ice.
The Lightning have the opportunity to play the spoiler role down the stretch, particularly in these next two games. The Panthers are coming off a tough 2-1 shootout loss on Thursday to division-leading Carolina. The defeat ended Florida’s franchise record tying seven-game winning streak and put the Panthers eight points behind Carolina with seven games to play (the Hurricanes have six games remaining). It was a big swing game. Had Florida beaten Carolina in regulation, it would have been only five points out with that game in hand. While overtaking Carolina still is not out of the question, clearly Florida’s most direct path to the playoffs is no longer through the division. The Panthers likely will only qualify for the postseason if they can climb into the Conference’s top eight.
With 79 points, the Panthers are only four points behind Boston for the final playoff spot, but Washington (82 points) and Buffalo (81 points) are in between the Bruins and Panthers. In other words, the Panthers must leapfrog three teams over the final two weeks, so they have little margin for error.
That’s why this game is so important to the Panthers and why a Lightning win tonight would severely damage Florida’s playoff hopes. In the last couple of years, the roles of these teams were reversed and the Panthers created problems for the Lightning by beating them in several late-season games. Those defeats didn’t keep Tampa Bay out of the playoffs, but they made the Lightning’s road to the postseason much rockier and did affect Tampa Bay’s eventual seeding. The Lightning players who were here for those games now have the opportunity to exact a little payback.
If they’re going to beat the Panthers tonight, the Lightning will need to play a sound, defensive game. Readers of this blog know this is a common theme for me. When the Bolts are playing their game, they close out the opposition in the neutral zone, fore-check well and possess the puck in the offensive end. It’s this simple – if the other team doesn’t have the puck, it can’t score. For the Lightning, then, puck possession is their preferred method of playing good “defense”. This puck possession, which results from good neutral zone play and a strong fore-check, also leads to offensive chances. That, too, will be important tonight against the Panthers, who yielded only 10 goals (not including Carolina’s shootout goal) during their 7-0-1 streak. Tomas Vokoun has allowed only eight goals in his last five starts and the team defense in front of him has been solid. The Panthers feel that upgraded their blue line at the deadline when they dealt Ruslan Salei to Colorado for Karlis Skrastins. By the way, former Lightning defensemen Jassen Cullimore, signed as a free agent in November, has been outstanding and leads the Panthers with a plus-19 rating.
As always, the goaltending matchup will be a key. Mike Smith gets the start tonight and if he outperforms Vokoun, the Lightning will have an excellent chance to leave Sunrise with two points.